WASHINGTON — As NASA Administrator Charles Bolden prepares to depart for China for talks about possible Sino-U.S. cooperation in areas including human spaceflight, agency and White House officials are taking care to temper expectations about what the discussions might yield.

Damon Wells, a senior space policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, cautioned that numerous legal and policy challenges must be addressed before the United States can forge a cooperative partnership in human spaceflight with the Chinese. During a two-day meeting of the U.S. Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee here Oct. 6-7, Wells made no mention of Bolden’s travel plans, but said in response to a committee member’s question that inviting Beijing to participate in the international space station program is “a very complex issue” here and in China.

“Those challenges touch issues like the need for more transparency in the Chinese program, nonproliferation questions — there’s a wide swath of issues that make this a very complex problem,” Wells said in response to a question from a committee member. “I don’t know when we’d be far enough along the path for that to make sense and where we’d make enough progress on those issues for that to make sense. I see the arena and I see the challenges and I just don’t know how to answer your question beyond that.”

Wells’ comments came just over a week before Bolden’s scheduled Oct. 16-21 visit for introductory talks with officials in the Chinese space agency. The talks were called for in a joint U.S.-China statement issued by the White House last fall following the official state visit to Beijing by U.S. President Barack Obama.

“The United States and China look forward to expanding discussions on space science cooperation and starting a dialogue on human space flight and space exploration, based on the principles of transparency, reciprocity and mutual benefit,” the document states. “Both sides welcome reciprocal visits of the NASA Administrator and the appropriate Chinese counterpart in 2010.”

But it remains unclear whether Bolden is making his trip at the behest of the White House or on his own initiative. White House spokesman Nicholas Shapiro declined to comment on Bolden’s China visit and referred media queries to NASA. When asked about Bolden’s trip NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage referred to last November’s joint U.S.-China communiqué that calls for expanded discussions on human spaceflight cooperation.

Cabbage said the trip “is being coordinated with all appropriate government agencies,” even as a senior Republican lawmaker requested a security briefing on the visit before it happens.

In an Oct. 5 letter to Bolden, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) said he strongly opposes any partnership with Beijing that involves human spaceflight.

“I need not remind you that no such planning or coordination has been approved by the Congress,” wrote Wolf, the ranking member on the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending. “In fact, several recent NASA authorization bills have explicitly sought to place strict limitations on coordination with China.”

Wolf, an outspoken China critic, is in position to become chairman of the subcommittee next year if Democrats lose control of the House in the November elections.

“It should go without saying that NASA has no business cooperating with the Chinese regime on human spaceflight,” Wolf wrote.

Cabbage said NASA is currently preparing a response to Wolf’s letter.

During a U.S. visit in April, a top Chinese space official said Beijing has established a good working relationship with space agencies in Russia, France, Germany and other countries, and that China looks forward to working with the United States in space science and manned exploration efforts in the future.

Citing the 2009 joint U.S.-China statement, Wang Wenbao, head of China’s Manned Space Engineering Office, said China is looking forward to a visit from Bolden later this year.

“This forms an important foundation for both sides to carry out manned space cooperation,” he said.

According to an Oct. 1 NASA white paper detailing Bolden’s trip, the visit will involve “initial discussions” with Chinese human spaceflight officials and site visits to human spaceflight facilities.

“This will be introductory and will not include consideration of specific proposals for human spaceflight cooperation,” the paper states, adding that Chinese government officials are expected to pay a visit to NASA facilities in November.

The white paper also asserts that engagement with China in human spaceflight would be tied to the transparency of the communist country’s space activities.

Bolden would not be the first NASA administrator to visit China. His predecessor, Mike Griffin, led a NASA delegation there in 2006 to meet with Chinese space officials. Griffin said discussions during the trip with his then-Chinese counterpart, Sun Laiyan, provided insight into the Chinese space program.

“One of the most important aspects of our trip is the opportunity to gain better transparency and trust,” Griffin said in a statement posted on NASA’s website following his visit.

In an Oct. 8 e-mailed response to a Space News query, Griffin said his trip to China was “both very valuable and very enjoyable. Our team planted the seeds for scientific cooperation, and allowed each side to gain a bit of insight into the other’s perspective. Overall, it was well worth the effort.

“We were not able to make any significant progress toward working together in human spaceflight. Indeed, our request to tour China’s human spaceflight facilities was declined. I hope that this subsequent visit by a new Administrator will prove more fruitful in that respect.”